November 2, 2005
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden wants to know if taxpayers are getting a good return from the billions that are being spent annually to preserve wild salmon and steelhead runs.
Or if a federal judge is correct in his assertion that four dams may need to be torn down along the lower Snake River to aid in fish recovery.
“Congress has spent most of its time and energy looking at habitat, hydropower and hatchery issues,” he said. “But the Endangered Species Act doesn’t say that you can harvest a protected species except as an ‘incidental take.’ We need to really look at what that means.”
Within the next few weeks, the Republican official will hold a meeting in Eastern Oregon to gather more information on harvest levels in the Columbia River Basin. That will follow other fact-finding sessions held this fall by Walden and two other Democratic federal legislators in Vancouver and Puget Sound, both in Washington State.
Walden believes that less focus has been given to the practices of the fishing industry than to habitat restoration. He said information is also plentiful on fish mortality issues associated with hydropower plants and the genetic differences between hatchery stock and wild species.
“For our region, salmon recovery has become the most important issue we face because of the way the courts are now interceding,” said Walden.
He said harvest is a complex issue, since it also affects the economy of the Pacific Northwest. For example, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study in 2001 contends that sport fishing provided $3.6 billion in economic benefits. The study also states that the industry created more than 36,500 family-wage jobs, generating $13.5 million in federal income taxes that year. Almost that same amount of tax was paid into the coffers of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
However, Walden also believes that money shouldn’t continue to be poured into recovery programs if they aren’t working. He said 11 federal agencies spend $1.5 billion annually to aid endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead runs. In addition, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spends $600-$700 million each year to help fish and wildlife.
“We have provided habitat, spawning beds and worked on ever-safer downstream passage for salmon offspring; however, unless we ensure spawning-ready adults are being provided the opportunity to return home to spawn, all of these efforts may be fruitless,” wrote Walden in a recent opinion piece.
Walden has been joined in his quest by two Congressional delegates from Washington. Democrats Brian Baird and Norm Dicks also want to ensure that harvest levels in the Columbia River are not unduly lowering fish runs. The average salmon runs over the past five years have dramatically improved from where they were through most of the 1990s.
However, Walden said there are differing scientific opinions even on this issue. He said many experts claim that hatchery stock is up, but native runs are down. And, the bottom line, he said, is that the law requires the protection of all endangered and threatened species.
“We’re not saying ‘ban fishing.’ We’re looking at any impediments that adult salmon are encountering in the river system,” he said. “We need to learn if there’s any way that we can selectively harvest so that we leave the stronger wild salmon in the river and only take hatchery fish.”
He said the discussion may broaden to include Canadian officials, since 27 percent of Snake River Fall Chinook are harvested by the neighboring country. That equals the amount of fish taken from the ocean by gill netters along Washington, Oregon and California. The annual catch by roving seals and sea lions also has to be factored into the equation, he said, since they consume thousands of salmon each year.
Walden, Baird and Dicks are answering the call of a federal judge to provide more answers on the complex issue. In early October, U.S. District Judge James Redden declared that dams may have to be torn out if Congress and the president do not supply money and commitment to aid salmon in other ways.
“We are all aware of the demands of other users of the resources of the Columbia River and Snake River, but we need to be far more aware of the needs of the endangered and threatened species,” wrote Redden.
That directive immediately sparked praise from conservation groups and opposition from energy producers.
“Dam removal on the lower Snake would open 140 miles of free-flowing river, and improve access to hundreds more miles of prime salmon habitat, not to mention create hundreds of millions of dollars in new fishing and recreation business,” wrote Michael Garrity of American Rivers in a press release following Redden’s opinion.
Conversely, the Bonneville Power Administration estimates that the ruling could cost rate payers in the Northwest $67 million and raise rates by four to five percent, or higher.
“The problem here is that there isn’t any guarantee that fish will be saved by taking out the dams. We won’t have that answer until we have taken a real look at our harvest practices,” said Walden.
He was told this month by Fish First that commercial harvest reduces the salmon population much more than dams. According to Gary Loomis, president of Fish First, 70 percent of the Chinook salmon runs were decimated around the turn of the century by the fishery; well before dams were erected for energy production.
Walden said the stakes are too high for a decision to be made about the dams before the entire picture on fish recovery has become clear.
According to reports, the federal dams proposed for breaching provide nearly half of the electricity that powers the nearly $400 billion economies of the four involved states. In addition, millions of acres of farmland irrigated from the Snake, Columbia and tributaries produce at least $3 billion in economic activity.
“If I went out pheasant hunting and, as a consequence of that, I shot a bald eagle or a spotted owl every once in a while, I’d be put in jail,” said Walden. “Maybe we are doing the equivalent of that by allowing our endangered fish runs to be harvested. That is just one of the many issues that we need to address.”